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Developing Initial International Research Priorities
MICROBIAL FORENSICS HAS BEEN DEFINED as “a scientifc discipline dedicated to analyzing
evidence from a bioterrorism act, biocrime, or inadvertent microorganism or toxin release for attribution
purposes”— where attribution means determining “who did it.” This emerging discipline seeks to offer investi-
gators the tools and techniques to support efforts for attribution in the event of a release of a biological agent.
But microbial forensics is still in the early stages of development and faces substantial scientifc challenges to
provide a robust suite of technologies for identifying the source of a biological threat agent and attributing
a biothreat act to a particular person or group. This report, based partly on a workshop held in Zabgreb,
Croatia, identifes scientifc needs that must be addressed to improve the capabilities of microbial forensics to
investigate infectious disease outbreaks and provide evidence of suffcient quality to support legal proceedings
and the development of government policies.
BOARD ON LIFE SCIENCES
Through TV shows such as CSI, many of us
have become familiar with forensics: the use of science
to gather evidence that helps solve crimes, exonerate
the innocent, or identify missing persons. Often that
evidence consists of human DNA or fngerprints. But
when the weapons used are pathogenic microbes, a
different type of forensic science is needed. Microbial
forensics focuses on the biological signatures of
microbes — life forms too tiny to see — to investi-
gate biological crimes. The challenges for microbial
forensics would be diffcult enough within the law
enforcement context of a single country, but if a
suspected deliberate outbreak spanned national
boundaries, the challenges would be even greater.
Because microbial forensics is an emerging disci-
pline that is still developing, the Zagreb workshop
aimed to increase awareness of microbial forensics
among the members of the larger international
scientifc communities and elucidate the major issues
that need to be addressed for the global development
of the science of microbial forensics. The report’s
authoring committee also gave particular attention to
those areas, such as increased scientifc knowledge
about microbial communities and common standards
and protocols for analysis, which would beneft from
international cooperation and collaboration.
UNDERSTANDING THE MICROBIAL WORLD
Microbes are everywhere: there are ten-million-fold
more microorganisms on our small planet than there
are stars in the visible universe. Yet little is known
about most of the microbial world — and much of
what we do know comes from the very few micro-
organisms that can be cultured in laboratories.
In recent years, the new techniques of meta-
genomics have allowed scientists to directly assay
microbial gene sequences from environmental
and clinical samples, circumventing the inability to
culture most microbes. But these techniques are
still being developed, and meanwhile, there remains
much to learn. The dearth of information about the
vast majority of microbes represents a major scien-
tifc knowledge gap. For example, in the event of a
biothreat scientists need baseline information on the
natural abundance and distribution of the pathogen to
help fgure out if the presence of pathogen is natural
or the result of a deliberate or inadvertent release.
CLINICAL AND PUBLIC HEALTH
The technologies for microbial forensics could aid
not only law enforcement and policy makers, but also
public health workers in trying to identify the existence
and source of infectious disease outbreaks. As was
the case in the 2001 anthrax attacks, the public health
system will likely be the frst to encounter a biological
attack — and the frst line of defense against it.
Although the use of molecular techniques to
identify pathogen species and strains has become
fundamental to microbial forensics over the past 10
years, it is only now being adopted in clinical medicine.
Some hospitals are, for example, now using small
Special techniques and methods are needed to gather
and preserve microbial forensic evidence — and to
protect the health and safety of the frst responders
who gather this evidence at the crime scene.
Developing and validating sample collection, preserva-
tion, handling, storage, packaging and transportation
methods and procedures requires a much higher
priority. Existing processes need to be standardized,
compiled, and shared worldwide, while new, more
effcient ones should be sought.
VALIDATION AND STANDARDS
All components of a microbial forensics investigation
need to be validated — from methods for collec-
tion and sampling, preservation and handling, to
identifcation of the agent. Establishing criteria and
requirements for validation, and compiling a list of all
validated protocols in use (e.g., for sampling, DNA
extraction and isolation, and sequencing) would help
ensure the quality of microbial forensic evidence.
BIOINFORMATICS AND DATA
As new sequencing methods generate huge amounts
of data, needs are growing for novel ways to handle
and analyze this information. Advances in bioinfor-
matics — an interdisciplinary feld that develops and
benchtop sequencers to determine the identity and
characteristics, such as presence of antibiotic resis-
tance genes, in organisms infecting patients. Expanding
capabilities for detecting and responding to the
whole spectrum of natural, intentional, and acci-
dental outbreaks of disease — not just the rare event
of a serious biological attack — will ensure that the
relevant tools and procedures are used frequently and
available when they needed in the event of a bioter-
DEVELOPMENT OF HIGH-CONFIDENCE
METHODOLOGIES TO DISTINGUISH AMONG
NATURAL, ACCIDENTAL, AND DELIBERATE
OUTBREAKS OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE
Although there are criteria for considering whether a
disease outbreak is unusual, determining whether such
an event is due to natural, accidental, or deliberate
causes, and collecting the information to work through
these criteria at the time of an outbreak event is likely
to be time-consuming and slow. A biological event
demands rapid and effective responses to minimize
loss of life, spread of illness, and to thwart criminal
or terrorist activity and prevent follow-on attacks.
Time lines for making this crucial determination are
currently unacceptable from both public health and
law enforcement standpoints, which require devel-
opment and management of appropriate and rapid
responses, recovery measures, and resolution.
METHODS AND TECHNOLOGIES
Methods of great value in microbial forensics include
both molecular genetic and non-genetic technologies.
PCR, sequencing of 16S ribosomal RNA, and whole
genome sequencing are molecular genetic technolo-
gies used to characterize microbial agents. Other
techniques from the physical sciences, such as mass
spectrometry and electron beam-based methods, can
be used to analyze the physical properties of microbial
forensic evidence, such as the presence of additives to
enhance dispersability, or physical signatures from the
locale where the material originated.
The technology and validation procedures used
during the investigation of the October 2001 anthrax
letters case took eight years to fully develop. In the
event of a future outbreak, a timeline that long will
not be acceptable. Therefore, the work of discovering
more information on pathogens and pathogenicity
and developing new analytical methods for micro-
bial forensics requires a much higher priority now.
Development of more advanced, faster, and cheaper
assay and sequencing technologies that can be stan-
dardized and made more accessible worldwide to
beneft both microbial forensics and public health is
Figure 1. Both biocrimes and bioterrorism exist on a
continuum of risk associated with biological agents. The other
end of the spectrum deals with natural outbreaks or acci-
dental releases of infectious disease agents. In all cases on the
spectrum, public health protection requires that the microor-
ganism frst be identifed and its source located to stop further
cases of exposure. To this degree, medicine, public health, and
law enforcement initially have common aims and methods.
Microbial forensics, however, has requirements and needs
that, in many ways, go beyond those of medicine and public
health. Though often applicable to medicine and public health,
the methods used in microbial forensics delve deeper into iden-
tifcation of organisms, require standardization and validation,
and must meet legal standards for evidence. At the same time,
the commonalities with public health provide opportunities to
leverage methods and information across felds.
improves on methods for storing, retrieving, orga-
nizing, and analyzing biological data — are needed to
help meet these needs.
Refnement of bioinformatics and statistical
methods for evaluating evidence in microbial forensics
is needed, including new algorithms that scale to very
large data sets. Bioinformatics also needs to be made
understandable and user-friendly to laboratory users,
frst responders, the public, and policy makers. Setting
out clear requirements for the feld could help attract
industry to develop the hardware and software for
bioinformatics, as well as the data storage mechanisms
that will be necessary. A dedicated facility to test and
evaluate software for bioinformatics could potentially
serve the entire microbial forensics and epidemio-
Data sharing — from biological information on gene
sequences to software, protocols, and standard
methods for microbial forensics procedures — is
critical. Sharing such data has the potential to promote
international collaboration and cooperation among
scientists, and, more importantly, inspire innova-
tion. An international body that has the respect of
the international political and scientifc communities
should begin discussions about how to share microbial
forensic data soon.
Establishing a comprehensive archive of reference
materials — including organisms, nucleic acids, and
sequence information — could facilitate the develop-
ment of standardized nomenclature and techniques
and provide references for genomic comparisons. Such
a facility should take advantage of existing models,
such as the American Type Culture Collection and
the World Data Centre for Microorganisms. A model
system for a consortium of reference collections and
data storage centers could be created and later scaled
up to become more inclusive.
TRAINING AND EDUCATION
Microbial forensics is still a relatively new discipline.
Training is needed for a number of purposes, including:
• Increasing the availability of trained microbial foren-
• Increasing the awareness and preparedness of
frst responders, which is essential for both safety
purposes (to prevent accidental exposures of
responder personnel to hazardous pathogens) and
for law enforcement needs to ensure that evidence
samples are not compromised and crime scenes are
• Improving the understanding of policy makers and
the public about what microbial forensics is and
what it can and cannot accomplish.
MICROBIAL FORENSICS NEEDS
In its efforts to identify what science is required to
develop microbial forensics further, the committee
used a generous defnition of “science,” including
research to improve fundamental scientifc under-
standing of microbes, specialized research intended for
particular applications in public health, law enforce-
ment, or elsewhere, and an array of technologies and
methods that support both basic and applied research.
The committee also identifed a variety of procedural
and policy needs, such as common understandings and
protocols for collecting and managing samples within
and among nations. The list of needs identifed by the
committee is long, but the successful development of
microbial forensics will require addressing all of them.
CHALLENGING TASKS AND/OR LONG
Some tasks are particularly challenging and/or require
a long lead time to achieve the desired results. Such
efforts will require the involvement of governments to
provide research resources to over many years, and
should be given priority by participating institutions.
• An international collaboration engaging the world-
wide scientifc community in a systematic effort
to identify, monitor, and characterize a far higher
proportion of global microbial species to increase
knowledge about endemism and background. The
effort should begin with known pathogens and then
expand to their close relatives as well as emerging
• Development of high confdence methods to
distinguish among natural, accidental, and deliberate
outbreaks of infectious disease.
• Increased emphasis on development and valida-
tion of processes (sample collection, preservation,
handling, storage, packaging, and transportation) and
analytical methods for microbial forensics, including
establishing standards for most components.
• Discussions under the auspices of an international
body that has the respect of the international
political and scientifc communities about how to
share microbial forensic data, and for developing and
presenting cogent arguments that can be persuasive
to political leaders and scientists worldwide.
• An international effort to design and establish
more systematic and comprehensive reference
collections and databases for pathogens and other
microorganisms. This effort could take advantage
of existing models, such as the World Data Centre
for Microorganisms and the American Type Culture
Collection. A model system for a consortium of
reference collections and data storage centers
could be created and later scaled up to become
ONGOING EFFORTS ON WHICH TO BUILD
Some needs could take advantage of ongoing efforts to
advance the development of microbial forensics, but
will require deliberate communication efforts and in
some cases funding to ensure that microbial forensics
applications are actually included and implemented.
• Increased emphasis on research to determine
mechanisms of pathogenicity, including virulence
factors and host immune responses.
• Priority research to realize the promise of metage-
nomics and its application to microbial forensics
and the development of the forensic value of the
other “omics”: proteomics, metabolomics, transcrip-
tomics, glycomics, immunogenomics, etc.
• Greatly improved global disease monitoring and
surveillance in humans, animals, and plants to facili-
tate rapid response and better disease control.
• Improved worldwide access to molecular diagnostics
(PCR, WGS, etc.), including refnement and distribu-
tion of bench-top NGS instruments that are fast and
affordable and have simple workfow procedures.
• High priority continued research and development
to improve physical science applications to microbial
• Refnement of bioinformatics and statistical methods
for evaluating evidence in microbial forensics,
including new algorithms that scale to very large or
complex data sets.
SHORTER LEAD TIMES OR INDUSTRY
Some tasks have either a relatively short lead time to
substantial progress, or signifcant markets that will
provide incentives for industry.
• Development of more advanced, faster, and cheaper
assay and sequencing technologies that can be stan-
dardized and made more accessible to beneft both
microbial forensics and public health.
• A compilation of all protocols in use (e.g., for
sampling, DNA extraction and isolation, sequencing,
etc.) and whether and how they have been validated.
• Expansion of technically-based training to “profes-
sionalize” microbial forensics and increase the
number of qualifed practitioners worldwide by
engaging international professional organizations
or other entities that have experience providing
training in related felds.
Committee on Science Needs for Microbial Forensics: Developing an Initial International Roadmap: John D. Clements
(Chair), Tulane University; Munirul Alam, International Center for Diarrhoeal Diseases Research, Bangladesh; Bruce
Budowle, Institute of Applied Genetics, University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth; Jongsik Chun, Seoul
National University; Nancy D. Connell, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Rutgers University; Rita R. Colwell, University of
Maryland, College Park; Paul Keim, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaf; Juncai Ma, WFCC-MIRCEN World Data Center
of Microorganisms (WDCM), Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; Alemka Markotić, University
Hospital for Infectious Diseases, Zagreb; Geofrey Smith, Imperial College London; Frances E. Sharples (Study Director and
Director), Jo L. Husbands (Scholar/Senior Project Director), Carl Anderson (Program Associate), Board on Life Sciences,
National Research Council; Benjamin Rusek (Program Ofcer), Committee on International Security and Arms Control):
Kristin White (Consultant Writer).
Te National Academies appointed the above committee of experts to address the specifc task requested by the
U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of State, and the National Academy of Sciences. Te members volunteered their
time for this activity; their report is peer-reviewed and the fnal product signed of by both the committee
members and the National Academies. Tis report brief was prepared by the National Research Council based
on the committee’s report.
For more information, contact the Board on Life Sciences at (202) 334-2187 or visit http://dels.nas.edu/bls. Copies of Science
Needs for Microbial Forensics: Developing Initial International Research Priorities are available from the National Academies
Press, 500 Fifh Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001; (800) 624-6242; www.nap.edu.
Permission granted to reproduce this document in its entirety with no additions or alterations.
Permission for images/fgures must be obtained from their original source.
© 2014 Te National Academy of Sciences
Locate additional information, including related reports, at http://dels.nas.edu/bls
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